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SEC Conference Reset: The league gets even stronger in 2018-19

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone, and there are a dozen or so truly impactful decisions that are left to be made.

Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season.

The coaching carousel has come to a close.

The transfer market is slowly winding down.

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2018-19 season.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the SEC over the next six months.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

THE SEC LOOKS TO BUILD ON A GOOD 2017-18 SEASON: Much-maligned in recent years due to the underwhelming non-conference schedules and performances by some programs, the SEC has made strides. Good hires, with regards to both the conference office and schools picking new head coaches, and better scheduling practices paid dividends for the SEC last season as eight teams earned NCAA tournament bids and two others landed in the NIT. The ten combined postseason berths are the most for the SEC since the league expanded to 14 schools in 2013. And here’s the thing: the SEC should be even better in 2018-19.

In Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee the SEC boasts three teams that are in the Top 10 of many early rankings, and Mississippi State and LSU stand to be really good with the majority of their key contributors back. And in the case of LSU, the Tigers add a recruiting class that includes Nazreon Reid, Javonte Smart and Emmitt Williams. The jokes about this conference and its basketball product died down substantially last season, and that should continue to be the case in 2018-19.

(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

AS WE’VE COME TO EXPECT, KENTUCKY RELOADS: Kentucky, which won 26 games and reached the Sweet 16 last season, will have to account for the loss of four of the team’s top six scorers, as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo and Wenyen Gabriel all made the decision to turn pro. Kentucky also lost Sacha Killeya-Jones, who after two seasons in Lexington transferred to NC State. Those are some key losses, especially Gilgeous-Alexander and Knox, but the expectation at this point is that Kentucky will be even better next season thanks to the combination of who returns and who joins the program.

After testing the NBA draft waters forward PJ Washington is back, as are fellow sophomores Quade Green and Nick Richards. Joining those returnees is one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, with point guard Immanuel Quickley, off-guards Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro and power forward E.J. Montgomery making up that talented quartet. It’s also worth noting that Kentucky is one of the schools reported to be making a run at Stanford grad transfer Reid Travis, a first team all-Pac 12 performer who will be a major addition to whichever program he joins. Lastly, there’s the expectation that 2019 five-star guard Ashton Hagans will reclassify and join the program this summer.

THE NBA DRAFT PROCESS LARGELY WORKED OUT FOR THE SEC: While Kentucky lost some key contributors, as noted above PJ Washington did make the decision to return for his sophomore season. And he wasn’t the only SEC talent of note to do this. Auburn and Mississippi State had multiple key contributors withdraw from the draft, including guard Bryce Brown and center Austin Wiley (Auburn), and guards Nick and Quinndary Weatherspoon (Mississippi State). It wasn’t all rosy for Bruce Pearl’s Tigers however, as leading scorer Mustapha Heron withdrew from the draft and then transferred to St. John’s in order to be closer to his ailing mother.

The loss of Heron aside, Auburn has enough talent to make a run at another SEC title after sharing the top spot in the regular season standings a season ago. And at Mississippi State, Ben Howland has his best team since arriving in Starkville as the top six scorers from a team that reached the Postseason NIT semifinals have all returned. Other programs that benefitted from players withdrawing from the draft include Tennessee (Admiral Schofield), LSU (Tremont Waters), Missouri (Jontay Porter) and Florida (Jalen Hudson). Having those players back in the mix will only make the SEC better in 2018-19.

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LSU IS POISED TO MAKE A BIG JUMP NATIONALLY: Will Wade’s first season at LSU was a step in the right direction, as the Tigers finished the year with an 18-15 record (8-10 SEC) and reached the second round of the Postseason NIT. Point guard Tremont Waters was one of the SEC’s best freshmen, fellow guard Skylar Mays took a step forward as a sophomore and forwards Duop Reath and Aaron Epps were both productive options in the front court.

LSU will have to account for the losses of Reath and Epps heading into 2018-19, and all Wade did on that front was land a highly-regarded recruiting class that includes two of the nation’s best front court prospects in Nazreon Reid and Emmitt Williams. Add in LSU keeping five-star point guard and Baton Rouge native Ja’Vonte Smart home, and this is a team that’s has the talent needed to be a factor in the SEC title race and a player nationally as well. That being said the climb won’t be easy considering the programs ahead of LSU in the SEC pecking order, but the Tigers will be heard from.

WHO’S GONE?

  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox, Kentucky : Of the four players to leave Kentucky early for the NBA Gilgeous-Alexander and Knox were the most productive, with Knox being a first team All-SEC performer and the league’s co-Freshman of the Year, and Gilgeous-Alexander being a second team All-SEC selection. Kentucky’s play improved when Gilgeous-Alexander took the reins as starting point guard, with his ability to see over defenses, get into the paint off the dribble and defensive work being the reasons why. As for Knox, while there were moments in which he settled he was Kentucky’s most skilled scorer. Those two won’t be easy to replace, but Kentucky has reloaded with a very good recruiting class. What will also be key: PJ Washington, Nick Richards and Quade Green all taking a step forward as sophomores.
  • Collin Sexton and Braxton Key, Alabama: Sexton shared SEC Freshman of the Year honors with the aforementioned Knox, averaging 19.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. While losing Sexton, a projected lottery pick, hurts it isn’t as if his being a one-and-done player wasn’t expected in Tuscaloosa. To that point the Crimson Tide welcome back the likes of guards John Petty, Herb Jones, Avery Johnson Jr. and Dazon Ingram, and four-star freshman Jared Butler should factor into the team’s plans as well. Avery Johnson will also have to account for the loss of Braxton Key, who transferred to Virginia after going through a sophomore season affected adversely by injury. Had the versatile Key been healthy for the entire season, it’s likely that Alabama would have been better than an 9-seed in the NCAA tournament (and avoided Villanova in the second round).
  • Robert Williams, Tyler Davis and D.J. Hogg, Texas A&M: Billy Kennedy has some major holes to fill in the front court, as Williams, Davis and Hogg all decided to turn pro at season’s end. In the case of Williams, the buzz for him was such that he could have left after his freshman season and been a lottery pick as opposed to returning to College Station for the 2017-18 season. While Williams was the best defender and athlete in this trio Davis was the best low-post scoring option, and the 6-foot-9 Hogg was the best perimeter shooter. Texas A&M also lost Tony Trocha-Morelos from its front court rotation, and the personnel losses place even more pressure upon the likes of Isiah Jasey, Josh Nebo and recent addition Christian Mekowulu as the Aggies look to build on last season’s Sweet 16 run.
  • Chris Chiozza and Egor Koulechov, Florida: The good news for Mike White is that four of the top six scorers from last year’s team are back, including leading scorer Jalen Hudson. The bad news: he’ll have to account for the loss of starting point guard Chris Chiozza, who averaged 11.1 points and 6.1 assists per game last season. Also gone is Egor Koulechov, who in his lone season at Florida chipped in with 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. While those personnel losses hurt, the return of Hudson, KeVaughn Allen and Keith Stone and the additions of talented prospects such as Andrew Nembhard and Keyontae Johnson will help matters. Also, forward Isaiah Stokes is healthy after missing last season due to a torn ACL. Florida should once again be good, but how good will depend upon the consistency of KeVaughn Allen.
(Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

WHO’S BACK?

  • PJ Washington, Kentucky: Washington went through the NBA draft process, but ultimately decided to return to Lexington for his sophomore season. While productive as a freshman, averaging 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, Washington did not have the consistent first-round grade that some players look for when making their draft decisions. His return is undoubtedly a positive for Kentucky, which will be able to pair solid returning contributors with a very good recruiting class. And that has been the formula for Kentucky’s most successful teams during John Calipari’s tenure as head coach.
  • Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Lamonte Turner, Tennessee: Only one of these three, Schofield, went through the NBA draft process, and with all of them returning the Volunteers are expected to be even better in 2018-19. Williams was named SEC Player of the Year last season after averaging 15.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game as a sophomore, with Schofield and Turner (SEC Co-Sixth Man of the Year) being double-digit scorers as well. In total Tennessee returns its top six scorers from a team that won a share of the SEC regular season title.
  • Bryce Brown, Jared Harper and Austin Wiley, Auburn: Auburn, which shared that SEC title with Tennessee, received needed boosts on two fronts this spring. Brown, Harper and Wiley all decided to return for another season after testing the waters, with Wiley and Danjel Purifoy both being cleared after being sidelined last season due to the FBI investigation that rocked college basketball. Wiley and Purifoy will miss the first nine games of the 2018-19 season, but to have those two back in the rotation is big for Bruce Pearl. Auburn did lose leading scorer Mustapha Heron, who transferred to St. John’s after withdrawing his name from the draft, but they have the talent needed to account for his departure.
  • Chris Silva, South Carolina: After sharing SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors with Texas A&M’s Robert Williams, Silva tested the NBA draft waters before deciding to return for his senior season. And that’s a huge deal for South Carolina, which will have to account for the losses of Frank Booker and Wesley Myers. While his defensive work is what got Silva an individual honor last season, it’s important to remember that he averaged 14.3 points per game as a junior.
(Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

WHO’S COMING?

  • Immanuel Quickley and E.J. Montgomery, Kentucky: Kentucky’s recruiting class was mentioned above and with good reason, as it’s considered to be the second-best crop in the country behind Duke. Quickley and Montgomery are key figures, with the former immediately in the mix on the perimeter as Kentucky looks to account for the departures of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo. As for Montgomery, the 6-foot-10 forward will also see immediate minutes with P.J. Washington being the most noteworthy front court returnee and Nick Richards back as well.
  • Darius Garland, Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt lost three of its top four scorers from a season ago, but the Commodores should put forth an improved product due to who arrives on campus. Among the newcomers is 6-foot-2 point guard Darius Garland, one of two five-star recruits brought in by Bryce Drew. Garland and sophomore Saben Lee should combine to form a talented and entertaining perimeter duo for the Commodores this season. As for the other five-star prospect, forward Simi Shittu, it remains to be seen how much he’ll be able to contribute early on after a torn ACL ended his senior season in late January.
  • Nazreon Reid and Emmitt Williams, LSU: Will Wade hit the jackpot last spring by landing Tremont Waters, and his second recruiting class at LSU ranks among the nation’s best. Wade left the state for two five-star prospects in Reid and Williams, who will be expected to contribute immediately as both Duop Reath and Aaron Epps are out of eligibility. The third five-star prospect in the class in point guard Ja’Vonte Smart, a key recruit in that Wade managed to keep the state’s top talent from leaving.
  • Andrew Nembhard, Florida: With the graduation of Chris Chiozza, Florida had a major hole to fill at point guard even with reserve Michael Okauru still in the fold. Enter Nembhard, a 6-foot-4 Canadian who finished his high school career at Montverde Academy in Florida. Nembhard’s size gives Florida a different dimension at the point than it had with Chiozza running the show, and his ability to get guys the ball in spots where they’re most effective should result in the freshman working well alongside Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen.

COACHING CHANGES

  • Tom Crean, Georgia: After a nine-year run that produced two NCAA tournament bids the Mark Fox era came to an end in Athens, with Georgia hiring former Marquette and Indiana head coach Tom Crean to replace him. Crean spent last season working as a color commentator and studio analyst at ESPN, and the hope in Athens is that his accomplishments at prior head coaching stops foreshadow similar success at Georgia. Unfortunately for Crean he won’t have either Yante Maten or Juwan Parker to work with as both graduated, but three starters (William Jackson II, Derek Ogbeide and Rayshaun Hammonds) and reserve Tyree Crump are among the returnees.
  • Kermit Davis, Ole Miss: Ole Miss bid farewell to Andy Kennedy, the program’s all-time wins leader, in mid-February as he announced his resignation. Stepping in to replace Kennedy was Kermit Davis, whose successful 16-year run at Middle Tennessee included 332 wins, six regular season conference titles (three Sun Belt, three Conference USA) and three NCAA tournament appearances. The biggest news for Davis this offseason was Terence Davis, Ole Miss’ leading scorer each of the last two seasons, deciding to withdraw his name from the NBA draft and return for his senior year.
(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-SEC TEAM

Grant Williams, Tennessee (POY)
Bryce Brown, Auburn
Tremont Waters, LSU
Chris Silva, South Carolina
PJ Washington, Kentucky

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. Tennessee: A season that began with the Volunteers being picked to finish 13th in the SEC ended with 26 wins, a share of the SEC regular season title and the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance in four years. With much of that team back Rick Barnes may have a national contender on his hands, and the disappointing end to last season should motivate this experienced group.

2. Kentucky: The combination of returnees and talented newcomers make the Wildcats a player within the SEC and nationally, as we’ve come to expect. P.J. Washington and Quade Green will need to take on leadership roles while also competing for minutes alongside the likes of Immanuel Quickley, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro and E.J. Montgomery (and likely Ashton Hagans as well). And can Nick Richards take a step forward after struggling with inconsistency last season? Kentucky will need him to.

3. Auburn: From a depth standpoint the Tigers don’t have much room for error, especially with the departure of Mustapha Heron. That being said this is a very good rotation to work with, as Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley will be back on the court after sitting out the first nine games of the 2018-19 season. Bryce Brown, Jared Harper, Horace Spencer and Anfernee McLemore return, and transfer guards Samir Doughty (VCU) and Jamal Johnson (Memphis) will be eligible after sitting out last season.

4. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return their top six scorers from a season ago, including guards Quinndary and Nick Weatherspoon and forward Aric Holman, making this Ben Howland’s best roster since he arrived in Starkville in 2015. As a result, look for the Bulldogs to be an SEC title contender next season.

5. Florida: While the losses of Chris Chiozza and Egor Koulechov aren’t to be overlooked, the return of Jalen Hudson means that the Gators should once again be a tough out in 2018-19. Adding Andrew Nembhard and Keyontae Johnson to the mix will help with the perimeter depth, and Keith Stone and Kevarrius Hayes are back in the front court. The key for Florida: KeVaughn Allen playing with aggression consistently.

6. LSU: After a good first season in Baton Rouge, Will Wade is set up for a more successful run in 2018-19. Of course there’s the addition of one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, but Tremont Waters’ decision to return for his sophomore season is huge for LSU.

7. Alabama: Collin Sexton has moved on, but the Crimson Tide don’t lack for promising perimeter talents as Dazon Ingram, Avery Johnson Jr., Herb Jones and John Petty are all back for another season. In the front court Donta Hall and Daniel Giddens are back, with the former being Alabama’s leading returning scorer and rebounder.

8. Missouri: The Tigers lose Michael Porter Jr. and an all-SEC performer in Kassius Robertson, but the return of Jontay Porter means that Cuonzo Martin will have one of the SEC’s best front courts with Porter, Kevin Puryear and Jeremiah Tilmon being the key figures. On the perimeter the Tigers will need freshmen Javon Pickett and Torrence Watson to hit the ground running, as Jordan Geist is their most productive returnee.

9. Vanderbilt: The Commodores did lose a lot of production from last season, but that senior-led group finished the year with an 11-20 record. There’s a renewed sense of optimism due to the recruiting class that Bryce Drew has added, and in sophomore guard Saben Lee he has another young “building block” to work with.

10. Arkansas: Losing Jaylen Barford, Darryl Macon and Anton Beard, three of the top four scorers from a team that won 23 games and reached the NCAA tournament, does hurt. That being said Arkansas does boast one of the SEC’s better big men in rising sophomore Daniel Gafford, who made the decision to not even test the NBA draft waters.

11. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost their top three front court contributors, as Robert Williams, Tyler Davis and D.J. Hogg all turned pro. That leaves guards T.J. Starks and Admon Gilder to shoulder much of the load in 2018-19, with transfers Josh Nebo (Saint Francis-PA) and Christian Mekowulu (Tennessee State) joining Isiah Jasey in the front court. Also, Texas A&M will need Jay Jay Chandler and Savion Flagg to take a significant step forward if the team is to exceed this expectation.

12. Ole Miss: Kermit Davis won’t be working with a bare cupboard in his first season at Ole Miss. Terence Davis’ decision to return for his senior season means that the Rebels welcome back four of the team’s top scorers in 2017-18, with guards Devontae Shuler and Breein Tyree and forward Bruce Stevens rounding out that quartet. And the late additions of K.J. Buffen and Blake Hinson improve Ole Miss’ talent and depth in the front court.

13. South Carolina: The return of Chris Silva means that the Gamecocks return one of the SEC’s best defenders and overall players. But there’s still the need to account for the loss of two of the team’s top three scorers in Frank Booker and Wesley Myers. Returnees Justin Minaya and Hassani Gravett, and Georgetown transfer Tre Campbell will be among the other key contributors for Frank Martin in 2018-19.

14. Georgia: As noted above three starters are back from last season’s team as Tom Crean takes over. But with Yante Maten having graduated, who steps forward as Georgia’s top offensive option? They’ll likely have to get it done by committee, and in a league that’s gotten even better than it was last season that could make for some tough nights in Crean’s first season.

No. 5 Kentucky hands No. 1 Tennessee first SEC loss in dominant fashion

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This time, Kentucky made sure that it didn’t come down to a controversial call.

The No. 5 Wildcats used a 14-0 to open the second half, pushing a 37-31 halftime lead to 20 points as they cruised to a 86-69 win over No. 1 Tennessee in Rupp Arena on Saturday night. They were led by 23 points from P.J. Washington, who outplayed Tennessee’s all-american Grant Williams and staked his claim to the title of the SEC’s best player.

Keldon Johnson added 19 points for Kentucky, hitting three first half threes that helped lead Kentucky to an early double-digit lead.

This is the first loss in SEC play for Tennessee, who had not lost a game since they fell to Kansas in overtime in the title game of the Preseason NIT way back on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The win keeps Kentucky within a game of first place in the league standings. No. 21 LSU, who beat Kentucky in that controversial finish, is now tied with Tennessee for first in the SEC title race after they beat Georgia on Saturday night.

Here are three things we can take away from Saturday night’s top five battle:

1. THIS IS KENTUCKY’S CEILING GAME

We have been talking about the fact that Kentucky is good enough to get to the Final Four and win a national title for a couple of months now, but this game is the first time that was have seen them on the floor make a statement of this magnitude.

There are reasons to be concerned about just how good Tennessee is — and we’ll get to that — but there’s no doubt that they are one of college basketball’s best teams.

And Kentucky absolutely took them behind the woodshed.

P.J. Washington was living his best life and doing so while going up against the man we all thought was the favorite for SEC Player of the Year in Grant Williams. He finished with 23 points on a cool 9-for-12 fro the floor to go along with five boards, two steals and two blocks. He was a major reason that Tennessee could not find a way to get their offense flowing through Williams.

Keldon Johnson was just as good. He got hot early in the game, which helped the Wildcats shake off some early jitters and jump out to a double-digit lead, and looked every bit the part of a floor-spacer that is a threat to score off the bounce. Tyler Herro didn’t shoot the ball all that well, but he did finished with 13 boards and three assists while Ashton Hagans did his usual — pestering defensive to go along with nine points and seven assists.

Even Nick Richards gave Coach Cal terrific minutes, but perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was the play of Reid Travis. He finished with just 11 points, eight boards and a pair of blocks, but he did the job that Kentucky needed him to do, helping to wear down Tennessee’s frontcourt with his bulk.

It’s not all that surprising to see Kentucky come out and win a game like this given what happened on Tuesday night, but the way in which they won should let you know that these Wildcats are going to be a very real threat in March.

(AP Photo/James Crisp)

2. THIS RESULT HAD A LOT TO DO WITH MATCHUP

Tennessee wants to pound the ball in the paint as much as anyone in college basketball. There are only 20 teams in the country that get a higher percentage of their scoring off of two-point field goals and just 21 that get fewer points off of threes. It makes sense when you think about it: Their best player is Grant Williams, their second-best player is Admiral Schofield and those guys earn their keep because they are tougher, stronger and more physical than just about anyone that they come across. They are the nation’s second-most efficient offensive, according to KenPom, without making threes because of the way that their bigs are able to use their strength to their advantage, both in the post and when creating space for drivers.

The problem Tennessee ran into on Saturday night was that they faced off with a team that could match them inch for inch and pound for pound in the post. This was never going to be an ideal matchup for the Vols, but the way it played out sealed their fate.

And perhaps the most surprising thing about what happened on Saturday night is that it was Kentucky, not Tennessee, that was the bully.

The Vols are old, they are tough, they have a roster full of guys that look like they would thrive in the WWE and they’ve won an SEC title already. They were playing a team that is essentially all freshmen and sophomores, and it was the younger guys that treated their elders like little brother. Kentucky was the team that kept knocking Tennessee to the floor. Kentucky was the team that kept getting every loose ball. Kentucky was the team that was able to shake off physical play and continue to execute.

To think that this is the same team that rolled over and died against Duke three months ago is wild.

3. THE CONCERNS ABOUT TENNESSEE’S TALENT ARE REAL

Tennessee isn’t going to blow you away with their talent. They aren’t a one-and-done factory that is stacked with future NBA superstars. They do have some guys that will earn paychecks at the next level, but the truth is that much of the reason that the Vols have been as successful as they have the last two years comes down to effort, execution and intelligence.

That issue was at the forefront on Saturday night.

Tennessee wasn’t getting enough out of their frontcourt on Saturday night, and they needed their guards to step up and carry them. Lamonte Turner finished 2-for-11 from the floor. Admiral Schofield had 17 points, but it took him 18 shots to get there. Jordan Bowden was just 1-for-7 from the floor. Jordan Bone finished with 19 points and six assists, but 11 of those 19 points and four of those six assists can after Tennessee trailed 62-38 with 12 minutes left in the game.

Not everyone has a frontcourt as good as Kentucky’s, and Kyle Alexander is not going to be in foul trouble every game, but this was a perfect example of why there are concerns about whether or not this team can win six in March.

Waters, Smart lead No. 19 LSU over Georgia, 83-79

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ATHENS, Ga. — Tremont Waters scored 20 points, Ja’vonte Smart added 19 and No. 19 LSU won its fourth straight game, holding off Georgia for an 83-79 victory Saturday night.

The Tigers (21-4, 11-1 Southeastern Conference) are off to their best start in league play since the 1981 Final Four team was 11-0. They never trailed after Smart’s 3-pointer midway through the second half, but Georgia stayed close and didn’t allow LSU to lead by more than eight the rest of the way.

LSU was down six midway through the first half, but went on a 17-2 run to take a 31-22 lead on Skylar Mays’ layup. Georgia remained in the game, thanks in part to a sixth straight sellout crowd at Stegeman Coliseum making it tough on the Tigers.

Nicolas Claxton finished with 17 points and Rayshaun Hammonds had 13 for Georgia (10-15, 1-11). The Bulldogs have lost six straight in their first season under coach Tom Crean.

TIP-INS

LSU: The Tigers keep finding ways to win on the road. They sneaked out of Rupp Arena this week with an upset victory on Kavel Bigby-Williams’ last-second tip-in against Kentucky, and they’ve won three times in overtime. It’s a big turnaround after LSU lost its final seven SEC road games last season and dropped nine in a row away from Baton Rouge before starting league play this year. The Tigers are 7-0 on the road in the SEC for the first time since 1981.

Georgia: In 24 SEC halves played this season, the Bulldogs have been outscored 20 times. … Crean went with a three-guard starting lineup, sitting forward Derek Ogbeide and guard Teshaun Hightower in favor of Turtle Jackson, Jordan Harris and walk-on redshirt senior Christian Harrison. … The Bulldogs have struggled all season off the dribble and in giving help, so Crean mostly used a 2/3 zone in hopes to jump-starting the defense. It didn’t help much as LSU, the SEC’s best free-throw shooting team, still made it to the rim to draw fouls and score 18 points from the foul line.

R.J. Barrett’s triple-double, Zion Williamson’s 32 points lead No. 2 Duke past N.C. State

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DURHAM, N.C. — RJ Barrett had Duke’s first triple-double in 13 years, finishing with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in the second-ranked Blue Devils’ 94-78 victory over North Carolina State on Saturday night.

Zion Williamson scored 32 points on 12-of-16 shooting and Tre Jones added 13 to help the Blue Devils (23-2, 11-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) win their ninth straight.

Barrett became the fourth Duke player with a triple-double and the first since Shelden Williams in January 2006. He completed it in the final minute, hitting Williamson for a layup that put Duke up 90-74.

Duke overcame 19 percent shooting from 3-point range by building a 44-26 rebounding advantage and scoring 22 points off N.C. State’s 12 turnovers.

Markell Johnson had 16 points and 10 assists, Torin Dorn scored 17 points and C.J. Bryce added 13 points for the Wolfpack (18-8, 6-7), who had their two-game winning streak snapped.

BIG PICTURE

N.C. State: The Wolfpack played like a team that believed it could beat Duke — because they had, winning each of the last two meetings — and kept coming up with an answer when the Blue Devils tried to pull away. But their struggles to keep Duke from scoring in the paint — the Blue Devils had 58 points there — kept them from their first three-game winning streak in the series since 1987-88.

Duke: The Blue Devils didn’t need a rally in this one, unlike their victory at Louisville four nights earlier in which they stormed back after trailing by 23 with less than 10 minutes left. They kept one neighborhood rival at arm’s length all night — though they never really delivered a knockout blow — and now they can focus on a bigger one: No. 8 North Carolina, which comes in Wednesday night.

IN THE SEATS

There was even more buzz inside Cameron Indoor Stadium for this one, with boxer Floyd Mayweather sitting directly behind the Duke bench and next to former Blue Devils guard Quinn Cook. Among the handful of other NBA players in attendance was Minnesota’s Tyus Jones, the older brother of the current Duke point guard, and Phoenix’s T.J. Warren, a Durham native and former N.C. State star who was in the stands with NBA All-Star Weekend taking place 2 hours away in Charlotte.

WATCH: No. 21 Iowa stuns Rutgers on wild buzzer-beater

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Joe Wieskamp finished with just nine points, but he somehow managed to hit the biggest shot of the game, banking in a three from the deep corner with 0.2 seconds left on the clock as No. 21 Iowa beat Rutgers, 71-69, in Piscataway.

The shot that Rutgers hit to take the lead on the Hawkeyes was equally as impressive, as Geo Baker found a way to roll home a three with just 3.3 seconds left on the clock, which put the Scarlet Knights up 69-68.

Jordan Bohannon led the way with 18 points and five assists for the Hawkeyes, who improved to 20-5 on the season and 9-5 in the Big Ten. They are still two games out of first.

Bubble Banter: All of the weekend’s bubble action in one spot

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There is not just under a month left in conference play, so it is time for us to go all-in on the “who’s-in-who’s-out” discussion. Bubble Banter has never been more important!

Some quick housekeeping before we dive into it:

  • This page will be updated throughout the weekend, so be sure to check back on Friday, Saturday and Sunday as the games get played. 
  • We’ll update them best that we can, but the NET rankings will be accurate through Friday morning. 
  • If you see something we missed, if you have an issue with a team we left out or if you want to congratulate us on a job well done, drop a comment below or hit us up here: @RobDauster.
  • The cut-off we will be using this year for teams that are “on the bubble” is the No. 9 seed line. If your favorite team is seeded as a No. 9 or better in our most recent bracket, they will not be discussed below. This does not mean that those teams are locks, but it means they need to do something dumb before they are in danger of missing out on the tournament. 
  • On Thursday, our Dave Ommen released an updated bracket, and these eight teams were placed in an 8-9 game: Buffalo, Alabama, Baylor, Syracuse, St. John’s, Auburn, Washington and TCU.

Onto the weekend’s action.

WINNERS

OKLAHOMA (NET: 41, SOS: 12): The Sooners finally snapped a five-game losing streak by going into Fort Worth and picking off TCU, 71-62. I still think that the Sooners are in a tough spot as it stands, but they now how four Q1 wins and just one loss to a team outside the top 35 in the NET — at West Virginia (115), a Q2 loss. A 4-8 mark against Q1 is not great, and neither is their 16-10 record or 4-9 mark in the Big 12, but OU does have three more shots at Q1 wins, and that doesn’t count Texas at home. Their bid is in their hands.

MINNESOTA (NET: 58, SOS: 60): The Golden Gophers got screwed on a bad foul call in the final seconds of a loss on Wednesday night, which cost them a Q1 win. They bounced back by absolutely humiliating Indiana at home, a win that won’t carry quite as much weight on Selection Sunday but that will keep the Gophers heading in the right direction. I personally think Minnesota is in really good shape right now given their win at Wisconsin and a win over Washington on a neutral. The 3-7 record in Q1 games isn’t ideal, but their worst loss is only a Q2 loss at Boston College. They close the season like this: Michigan (8), at Rutgers (118), at Northwestern (72), Purdue (11), at Maryland (21). If they go 3-2 in that stretch, they’re dancing, and 2-3 might even be enough to get the job done.

FLORIDA (NET: 42, SOS: 43): The Gators are not going to let us quit them. They picked up their best win of the season on Saturday, going into Tuscaloosa and pounding Alabama (45). That’s just Florida’s second Q1 win of the season. They are now 2-9 against Q1 opponents with a Q3 home loss to South Carolina in the mix. Their 14-11 overall record is not good, and their metrics are floated by the fact that they’ve played a lot of good teams close. Mike White’s team still has some ground to make up, but with two games against LSU (14) and a trip to Kentucky (6) on the schedule, they’ll have chances.

NEBRASKA (NET: 40, SOS: 70): I just can’t quit you, Nebraska. The Cornhuskers won their second straight game on Saturday, adding another Q2 win by picking off Northwestern (72) at home. I know that they lost seven straight earlier this year, but the Huskers are now 8-11 in Q1 and Q2 games with a pair of Q1 road wins. That’s enough to keep them in the mix, and with a schedule that is just absolutely brutal in the final three weeks of the season — at Penn State (70), Purdue (11), at Michigan (8), at Michigan State (7), Iowa (28) — they’ll get five more chances to notch Q1 wins.

WOFFORD (NET: 28, SOS: 167): Wofford absolutely beat the brakes off of the second-best team in the SoCon, UNC Greensboro. They won by 30 points. It’s not a Q1 win because it’s at home, but it is their fourth Q2 win to go along with a 2-4 mark against Q1. As long as the Terriers avoid losing at Chattanooga and at Samford, they are an at-large team in my mind. A 15-0 league record against a conference with more top 60 NET teams than the Pac-12 deserves to get in.

ARIZONA STATE (NET: 72, SOS: 67): Arizona State has one of the strangest resumes in college hoops this season. They are 4-1 in Q1 games and have another Q2 win at UCLA (107). But they’ve lost four Q3 games — Princeton (90), Utah (101), at USC (145), at Vanderbilt (189) — and that doesn’t court their worst loss of the year, at home to Washington State (230) by 21 points.

TEMPLE (NET: 55, SOS: 58): Here is the catch-22 for life on the bubble: Entering Saturday, Temple winning at USF (76) would have been a Q1 win. The Owls went out and they beat the Bulls in overtime. The problem? That loss dropped USF to 76th in the NET, meaning that it is now a Q2 win and Temple’s resume is still a win over Houston (5) and not much else. The reality is that won’t matter all that much. The committee will take into account that winning South Florida, whether it’s Q1 or Q2, is not a game-changer, which is why I’m still of the mindset that Temple needs to win at least four of their final five regular season games and avoid an AAC tournament loss to one of the teams at the bottom of the league.

BUTLER (NET: 53, SOS: 25): The Bulldogs beat DePaul on Saturday night, getting the win they needed to set themselves up for a shot at an at-large. Butler plays at Marquette on Wednesday and at Villanova in two weeks. With just one Q1 win to date, Butler might need to get both to really feel comfortable.

VCU (NET: 43, SOS: 40): The Rams were up by 22 points at Dayton (82) early in the second half and blew the lead, but thanks to a late Marcus Evans bucket, they were able to get out of Dayton Arena with a win. The win at Texas (35) continues to look better and better, a 3-2 mark against Q2 teams is solid and with just one bad loss — a Q3 home loss to Charleston (113) — the Rams are the Atlantic 10’s best chance at an at-large.

BELMONT (NET: 60, SOS: 166): For the Bruins to have a chance at an at-large, they need to win out and lost to Murray State and only Murray State in the OVC tournament. On Saturday night, they smacked around Tennessee Tech. So far so good.

UTAH STATE (NET: 38, SOS: 126): The Aggies probably couldn’t afford a loss to Air Force, and they did what they needed to win — win. There are two things that Utah State needs to do in they truly want to get an at-large bid to the tournament: 1. Beat Nevada at home, and 2. Hope that Fresno State cracks the top 75 in the NET. If they two, that’s one less Q3 loss and one more Q1 win on their resume.

UCF (NET: 45, SOS: 83): UCF won against Memphis in Orlando, which gives them a sixth Q2 win but doesn’t do much to change the biggest flaw in their profile: A total lack of Q1 wins. The Knights play at Cincinnati on Thursday. That will be the game-changer.

TEXAS (NET: 35, SOS: 6): The Longhorns did what they needed to do on Saturday, knocking off Oklahoma State in Austin to avoid picking up their second Q3 loss of the year. The Longhorns are now 15-11 overall and just 7-6 in the Big 12, but they have the No. 6 SOS and No. 11 non-conference SOS nationally. Combine that with a neutral court win over UNC (9), home wins over Purdue (11) and Kansas (18) and a win at Kansas State (26), and the Longhorns are in a pretty good spot.

LIPSCOMB (NET: 30, SOS: 188): Losing to a three-win Kennesaw State team would have been a dream-killer for the Bisons. They won and live to fight another day.

LOSERS

N.C. STATE (NET: 37, SOS: 239): The Wolfpack lost at Duke on Saturday, which is what we all expected to see happen. The chink in N.C. State’s armor is that they played the worst non-conference schedule in the country, and when combined with A) just one Q1 win and B) a Q3 loss, Kevin Keatts is not in a place where he can feel comfortable yet. The most troubling part: N.C. State’s season ends like this: Boston College, Wake Forest, at Florida State, Georgia Tech, at Boston College. They have one Q1 opportunity left. They really, really need to win it.

UNC GREENSBORO (NET: 46, SOS: 191): The Spartans were whipped at Wofford, losing by 30 to the SoCon leaders. It’s their second loss this week and probably takes them out of serious bubble consideration. We’ll keep them around, but they’re probably not going to have enough good wins.

ARKANSAS (NET: 63, SOS: 45): I don’t get the appeal of Arkansas as a bubble team. They won at LSU, which is nice, but that is their only Q1 win in seven tries and they are 3-10 against Q1 and Q2 opponents. They’ve also lost at home to both Georgia Tech (118) and Western Kentucky (121), which are Q3 losses. What is the appeal here? What am I missing?

INDIANA (NET: 49, SOS: 36): Indiana is off the bubble at this point. They went into Minnesota and got absolutely poleaxed. The Hoosiers have now lost 10 of their last 11 games to fall to 13-12 on the season and 4-10 in the Big Ten. If they can somehow find a way to put together a winning streak late in the year, they have some great wins — at Michigan State (7), Louisville (16), Marquette (20) — and no bad losses, but that feels like saying if I can lose 30 pounds and get my six pack back I could be an underwear model.

CLEMSON (NET: 42, SOS: 33): The Tigers had a shot to land their second Q1 win of the season, but after erasing and eight point lead in the final minute and forcing a turnover with 3.5 seconds left, the Tigers had a layup blocked with that would have won the game. The result doesn’t really hurt their profile other than the opportunity cost — this is the kind of win that, on this year’s bubble, can jump Clemson up four or five spots in the seed list. That’s a tough miss.

GAMES LEFT TO PLAY

SETON HALL (NET: 69, SOS: 39) at CREIGHTON (NET: 57, SOS: 16), Sun. 3:00 p.m. (FS1)